Thursday, 10 December 2015

Open mouthed and open ended

Last month I wrote here on the distilled wisdom of five years of writing, well I have been writing all my life really, but that was unaware putting down of words on paper, whereas last few years I have approached the writing a little more armed and aware;  a little less emotional, more in control, but of course only just.  And I said in that post that the endings I liked were a bit messy, a couple loose ends here and there, something that could go on in the reader's head after s/he had shut the book.  Open ended stories, in other words.

Just after I posted that nugget, I had the rare fortune of having a short of mine critiqued in detail by a publisher.  The patron goddess of wisdom, who is also the patron of writing incidentally, obviously has a wicked sense of humour.  The critique I received, itself about half the length of the story, a thorough job! and its message was that my story had a beginning, and a middle, but no end. It apparently failed to deliver because it left too many unanswered questions.  If this had happened five years ago, I would probably have been reduced instantly to a wreck.  But that is irrelevant. I hadn't submitted my work for publication, and so perhaps the 'rejection' for it was definitely a rejection, didn't feel overwhelmingly catastrophic or anything.  More like a quiet joke life was snickering at.  "Open endings, hah! Take that!"

Coming back to the point - the whole thing made me wonder, are open ended stories such damp squibs really?  Forget  my short, it might have other flaws apart from the unanswered questions, but generally? Didn't the father of the modern short story Chekhov himself favour open ended shorts? So many other writers seem to do too - take at peek here, and I am sure there are readers who do as well.  I mean, I'd understand a reader who wouldn't want to be left hanging after reading a 200 page novel, but a 2000 word story? What do you think? Do you feel cheated if some of the questions are left unanswered? Does an open ending deliver any reading satisfaction for you?

Monday, 23 November 2015

How to write a story: five guidelines gleaned in five years

Think of a story. Then cut it in half. Then in quarters. Pick up each quarter and isolate it. Bundle it up in such a way that it feels kind of complete in itself.  And then choose from the second, third or fourth where you're going to begin, maybe a point where the emotion's a little intense; or maybe cool, reflective. Pick a happening event and start in the middle of things.   That gives the story the narrative space to vault into the back story, which is not the back story at all, but the beginning.

In media res. In the middle of things.  Even the epics are written like this. What's good enough for Homer and Krishna Dwaipayana is certainly good enough for me the paler mortal.

Guideline no 1:  Never begin at the beginning.

Beginning anything is difficult.  Once a thing starts moving, it pretty much keeps on moving unless an effort is made to bring it to a stop.  Who said that? Newton, I think.  Ask any machinery operator, or an entrepreneur - start-ups require the maximum energy and attention.  Once things have started going, momentum carries them along, purring nicely.  What holds good for the entire solar system certainly holds good for me the tiny speck.

If the story begins in the middle somewhere, in the thick of action or plot, when it is three-quarters over in the writer's head, then obviously it is already more than half-done and done well.

Guideline no 2: A story well-begun is half done

Whatever it is you are writing, it must grab the reader's attention and keep it. The story must hook the reader with its beginning, and not let him go till the finish. Collude with him so that he is part of the action, part of the characters' psyche, living inside their heads almost as much as the writer.  Show him that only the paths are different but the choices and challenges, the indecision, the heartbreak, the triumph and tears, are the same.

Each of us lives in our separate bubble of time and place, with its own micro-environment, culture, mega-issues and stress. But a good yarn must break through all that and take him out of himself, engage him in another, perhaps unknown place, an imaginary bubble that doesn't exist in the physical world. Ensure familiarity by telling him mini-tales he already knows, motifs so familiar in our collective culture that he recognises them instantly and unconsciously. But also challenge him by not spelling out every little detail, let him fill in some blanks himself.  

The epics do it by referring to well-known oral traditions, crystallising them and embedding them into the narrative.  Modern writers do it by drawing upon the epics, on the collective art and literature of the world.  And like I said, what's good enough for Vyasa...

So, Guideline no 3: Collude and allude

A short story does its work in max 7500 words, most of them less than half that amount nowadays to accommodate changing tastes and shortening attention-spans.  Micro-stories pare it down to less than 100 words sometimes, poetry even less.  

The reader however sees a couple of pages, reads it in a few minutes. He doesn't even get a whiff of the internal madness that has gone into the making of it, however short or long.  The agony of where exactly to start, how to build the tension, what motifs to stud into the narrative, the meticulousness that has gone into choosing one particular word over another, he will see none of it. A tale well-told must always appear effortless, but there must be madness in the method. Otherwise the story will be lifeless and dry. That is the covert madness, the writer's passion.

What the reader will see is the conflict and the climax, where the story peaks, the characters and action go a little mad.  And then they make their choices, the action falls gradually away into the end.  Things going a bit mad in the story somewhere is what makes or breaks the middle.  Unless the plot 'thickens' the story flags and the readers yawn, put the book down, or click away to another site.

Guideline no 4: There must be madness in the middle, and in the method

Ever notice that a story is supposed to be an arc? Even a storyline is an arc, because a straight line is really a curve, a segment from a circle of an infinite radius.  Everything is a cycle, a circle, a loop. The show always goes on.  With or without you, the narrator.  The show must go on in the readers' head, there are no endings; only a point where you must judge your exit and finish speaking. Timing is crucial.  

All good stories stop short of an ending and let the reader carry on with the denouement.   And if the beginning has been chosen well, the ending is a piece of cake.  

Sometimes, even the writer himself can pick up the threads and carry on - writing a trilogy or septet as is the favoured mode nowadays. 

Guideline no 5:  In my end is my beginning.

Let me just say here that these guidelines, and I use the word guidelines loosely, apply outside of fiction as well.  To poetry for instance. They even apply to blog posts. Actually this blog post starts with Guideline 5 and not 1. But I sliced it up and started with the end.  Which could double up as easily as an actual ending too.  See what I mean?

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

A bit of babble, but not much squeak

For the last three months, words haven't poured out of me as they normally do.  I like to think that it's because my patience and/or my control has become better, but I suspect it's more to do with knowing to shut up when at a loss for words. Is that an improvement? Never mind.

The biggest thing that's happened in the past months was the vacation and the book launch. The IB-HCI anthology was finally done and released on Aug 1st.  Two separate launch events were held, sadly none at Kolkata, so I had to be satisfied with photos and reports and emails, but that didn't matter so much because I never expected that I would be attending anyways.  It just felt wonderful to see it all come together and to hold it in my hands.  And it has been a thrilling and a huge learning experience all the way - from presenting the contest ideas through to being mentored by Ashok Banker and the whole process of edits with the HCI team.

It's available from various retailers, here's the link from Flipkart. 

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

No babble, no squeak

Sometimes, a lot happens but doesn't exactly produce a pile of writing.  Looking back, a lot has happened since I wrote here last - I joined a writers' group, I submitted poems, I got through some final edits of the final edits of the anthology, I started off a new story which is taking its own sweet time to get to the end, I wrote a guest post on a blog that I admire (wow!), I sat myself sternly down and completed the first draft of a poetry manuscript,  and I wrote a bunch of poems for my blog and just like that.  All the usual stuff that one can't really write about, they don't lend themselves to a dramatic narrative anywhere.

Then there's the other stuff -  how the son did something right when he had the choice of easy on a platter, and both heart and head got swollen up to the point of bursting with pride and happiness and concern too.  An old friend said she was coming to a neighbouring country and asked if we could meet up there? and how the stars and the universe and the immigration bureaucrats aligned up their wills to make that happen.  A close relative suddenly made a gift that took the breath away with its generosity and love, and another said bitter things that made for discomfiture and bafflement.  No amount of dramatic narratives would do these justice, if I wanted  to write them down, which I don't. I keep these hushed inside myself for as long as possible, away from the sunlight, away from the babble and squeak of everyday meaningless noise.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

In love with love

It never ceases to amaze me that English, which is one of the richest and oldest languages, certainly older than Bengali my mother tongue, and richer with a vocabulary of more than a million words compared to Bengali's 100,000; but English has just one word for love, okay two if you count affection. Neither of them are nuanced, neither of them indicate the nature of the emotion, the object to which it is directed. Clipped and curt and businesslike, it gives you the state of the one who feels it but no further details. In the Indian languages I speak/know, and in Arabic which I try to speak and know a little, there are several words for love. In Bengali, there is general love, there is romantic/sexual love, there is the affection felt towards someone younger, there is the love of a mother towards a child, there is spiritual love directed at a divine being. And portmanteau words, which are an integral part of the normal language, no neologisms there, yield unending variants: mother-love, brother-love, son/daughter-love, friend-love. Does this say anything about the speakers of the languages?  I mean, apart from the fact that Bengalis are dreamy navel-gazing idealists in love with love?

Last couple of months have just zipped by - the child went on his first independent, international trip with his class to France, and all my energies in the days of his journey and leading upto it were taken up with not unravelling with worry and spoiling it for him. He managed fine though he did not wear as many layers as I had required and entreated and begged him to.  Once he reached, there was no way to communicate directly with him, but I survived somehow.  Glued to the updates that his teachers provided.  

Also the alternative medicine didn't work, not an iota of improvement after 6 weeks of relentless and fussy doses of pills and restrictions, so went back to the regular ENT and got regular allergy medicine, which seems to be working fine so far.  Breathing in, breathing out.  What more does one need? Keeps it simple, the priorities, love it simple. Wonder if there is a word for that in Bengali?

Tomorrow, or rather in a few hours, the A-Z Challenge starts, and this time I am better organised about both the reading, writing and visiting.  I am not sure whether I should sign up with this blog too, I had originally thought I would, because then I could plan the ones on M-i-V and this could be completely spontaneous, I am a pantzer by inclination! But then again it might be better to wait for the third year to do that.  

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Minor epiphanies

Is it enough time now? To look back on the year 2014 with some perspective, I mean.  It's been a very mixed year for me personally. Joyous family occasions and visits in the first half of the year made it go down sweet and smooth in one long, breathless swig.  But then a whole lot of things happened in the second half, some mere irritants and some rather awful. They steadily drip-dripped all through, eroding morale and mood. So I kept putting off the stock taking, the mental toting up of pluses and minuses. Meanwhile we are already halfway through January and the first few global disasters have already muddied the waters - Charlie and Boko Haram. And while je ne suis pas Charlie, je suis Ahmed more likely, and je ai eu some sort of epiphany definitely. There is never going to be a better time, for anything. This is the way it is, warts and all, and if I want to sum up, it will have to be done with them included. I can't slice into time, hold up a skein to the light, turn it this way and that, to make the past look or feel better than it was.

The worst of course was death, and last year it happened to come in threes. First a friend, then an aunt, then a friend's mother who I called aunt, and who had once done up my hair as a child, which incidentally my real blood-aunt had never done. That's how my life has been, strangers and friends have done for me what relatives normally do, and I see this repeated in my son's life as well, the perk-pitfall of expathood. But I digress. In between the deaths, there were the usual annoyances of relocation - the shipment took ages to arrive, a couple of books were slit into halves by the customs while checking for contraband, a few possessions of no particular value but prized nevertheless, got lost or broken.  

Somewhere along the line, my connect with Bahrain snapped, a place where I was happy to be previously, now feels vaguely strange, strangely claustrophobic. On the other hand, my connect with Egypt, which seemed to have snapped clean as I had got ready to move and pack over the long summer, I now find hasn't really, ragged threads here and there persist and surprise me still. Even the usual remedy of going away on a holiday and then the return, that coming back to own spaces and the aha moment which usually drives the nail home as to where home really is, failed to work this time.  The son was supposed to go on a school trip, a strategy I had thought would settle him in, but backfired big time as the visa didn't come through in time.  At the very start of our holiday in mid-December, he had a nasty fall and hurt his ankle, and we ended up going to the airport via the orthopaedic surgeon's clinic. Fortunately it wasn't a fracture, but a ligament injury can be almost as serious.  He is a total trooper and happily trudged on with an ankle brace for the holiday, but our enjoyment was rimmed with concern and initial panic.  A mixed holiday to round off a mixed year.

But it's not all bad.  It never is.  There have been highs as well.  Writing-wise, and family moments; spikes of enjoyment and laughter with friends. I have finally taken control of my health, and have resolved to sort myself out in 2015 once and for all. Trying some alternative medicine right now, which admittedly isn't working, but we'll see.  A time frame of three months, and then I dive into more intrusive treatments, which I have been avoiding for the past five years because I am a bit scared of it. Wealthier and wiser seem elusive, but healthier is an objective I can do something about! And I'm going to get a grip on the anxiety and the needless panic.  

I know I feel this every January, I felt this way about 2014 as well, and boy, was I right! This year too feels important somehow, meaningful in some obscure way, as if I am just months or weeks away from something greatly significant.  As if the changes haven't finished with us yet. I don't know whether that change is going to be for the better or worse, I hope it is for the better, but I know as long as we hang in together, we will manage to cope if, by chance, it is not.  

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Unfinished and unbalanced

This year, as in all years, I try to tote up balance sheets, the profits and losses, the learning and the opportunities lost, and it seems overall like a hard year to sum.  It has been a hard year, harder than usual, difficult in complicated ways.

I have travelled back and forth, I have moved home, I have battled with my usual, baffling, allergy-related illness and ye olde spirit is finally flagging, I am more uncomfortable in this body and its odd “disability” at this moment than I have ever been in the last five years.  I started learning Arabic and then stopped, I am not sure whether this is going to be a permanent break or if I will be able to pick it up again next year.  I blogged and wrote much, but still couldn’t complete the edits to the novella, and now that I think about it, maybe I should rewrite the whole thing, keep the kernel and scrap the rest.  A bit disappointing either way.  On the other hand, I also wrote a whole bunch of flashes and short stories and poems, some of them felt real good too, I started a new blog where I am less poetry and more me, all me in fact.  A blogpost here won an award. But right now all that doesn’t feel as important, as monumental as the things that didn’t get done. 

When I had come to Bahrain more than eighteen years ago, that was a huge change, from a working woman to a trailing spouse, from a big city, dwarfed in an even vaster country, to an island nation where one fell off the farthest edge after an hour’s drive.    Claustrophobia would have been justified then, but I am feeling it now with a lag of eighteen years.  As it was, I had got on with the job at hand and settled down and made the most of, even revelled at the staying-at-home part then.  I learned to cook and bake, found flexi-time jobs, wrested new computer skills, started a family, learned knitting from scratch, read a lot, made up stories and poems for my infant son, and left myself no time for disgruntlement.   Moving back here from Cairo seems minor in comparison, I already know the territory, both physical and psychological. So it feels a bit weird now, to be hit with this irritable restlessness, this chafing at a way of life that has been long familiar, in fact enriching even, truth be told.  

It is patently obvious that the further I have journeyed from my place of birth, the more time and resources I have had to look at my paths mindfully and critically, to regulate the pace of the travel; to glean, at leisure and unstressed, whatever insights that might have been granted me. I have been lucky in more ways than one, so it feels petty and above all quite baffling to give way to an attack of negativity.  To lose my perspective and let it be coloured by the temporary heartaches of the last half of the year.  Maybe I should revisit all this later this month, leave this blog post unfinished as of now.  The year is not yet over.  I think that is just what I will do.